YouTube made two fascinating announcements recently: 1) viewers are now downloading an average of two billion videos per day on the service, and; 2) YouTube is almost showing a profit for Google, its owner. Think about the glorious inefficiency embodied in that latter statement: two billion downloads per day just to break even. And this is supposed to be the future of television? Hardly.
I think the future of television is Veetle.
Veetle, if you haven’t heard of it, is a Palo Alto-based startup that isn’t nominated for this summer’s Startup Tour. Veetle appears from my vantage point to be a peer-to-peer video distribution system that most closely parallels the current cable TV model except applied to the Internet. Veetle video channels can be viewed in a browser (32-bit plug-in required) and present — just like CNN — a continuous stream of programming that can’t be interrupted, paused, or changed and can’t be very easily recorded, either.
In fact a Veetle channel very well could be CNN, because almost anyone can become a Veetle broadcaster by just grabbing a video feed from their DVD player or cable box and throwing it up on the web in glorious H.264. Veetle is an adolescent cesspool of intellectual property confusion but that’s part of what makes it so much fun.
Now here is why I think Veetle is the future of television. I have been writing about this particular topic (the future of television) since 1997 and while a lot has changed much has not. Sure, bandwidth is a thousand times cheaper than it was. Sure, codecs are better as are PCs. But the two core issues of: 1) how to maintain intellectual property rights for web video, and; 2) how to make money with web video, are no more answered today than they were back in the days of broadcast.com when Mark Cuban suckered Yahoo into thinking he had all the answers when of course he did not.
But in my view Veetle actually does have many of the answers.
Here’s why. YouTube has those two billion downloads per day yet just manages to break even. Commercial TV has less than two billion viewers per day, yet manages to be a very profitable industry with at least $20 billion in annual sales. The question to ask is not why YouTube is so popular by why it is so unprofitable? It is unprofitable because most of the content is crap. It is unprofitable because distribution costs are still too high. It is unprofitable because the ad model isn’t clear. It is unprofitable because the average video is still less than four minutes long so this is not a medium for story telling in any strict sense. Oh, and did I mention that the content is crap?
Commercial or even non-commercial TV, in contrast, may be too dumb, too simple, and too obvious for the most part, but not all of it is crap. Find a way to reach the non-crap while preserving the best of traditional TV and you’ll have something. You’ll have Veetle.
Pre-Veetle, the video distribution models were buying or renting from iTunes, watching with commercials on Hulu or TV.com in a system subsidized by the writers and actors unions, watching with some ads on YouTube, or just plain watching (crap) on many different sites. None of those models, however, have Veetle’s key feature of being easy to watch but hard to hack, easy to attend but hard to ignore. You can’t pause it, you can’t record it, you just have to watch it, like broadcast or cable TV pre-TiVO. And that makes it an ideal commercial medium and one very good for preserving intellectual property rights, unlike all those others.
The aha! moment with Veetle is when you realize it is just like having a cable TV system with a million channels. Along with the bad porn (Veetle really needs parental controls, guys) and European football on Veetle is a loop from some user running every episode of The Big Bang Theory, which of course I love. There are something like 66 episodes, but it could be just as easy with Veetle to have 66 channels each one episode deep.
And of course there is the p2p aspect of the service, which lowers Veetle’s bandwidth to around 700 kbps-per-continuous channel. Compare that to YouTube with two billion 350 kbps downloads at 3:30 each for the calculated equivalent of 2.4 MILLION Veetle channels. No wonder YouTube barely makes a profit even with zero content cost.
I could throw my 13 old episodes of NerdTV up on Veetle in full resolution, running them in a loop with a couple of commercials in each episode, and not only would I entertain people, I’d put my three kids through private schools on the proceeds. There is no way — no way— I could do that on YouTube.
That’s where Veetle gets it and YouTube doesn’t, because this particular option isn’t really available on YouTube, which remains an expensive distribution system in search of a viable programming model.
I can see how Veetle would grow to be a $20 billion replacement for traditional TV, but I can’t see how YouTube could ever do it.